Only in Dubai

Date Posted: 14/11/2010

From small fishing village to skyscraper city, Jeannine Williamson profiles the rise of Dubai.

Dubai is a truly dazzling destination. In the second largest of the seven United Arab Emirates, jaw-droppingly tall buildings dominate the skyline and the gold that adorns shop windows eclipses the yellow sands that once covered this southern shore of the Arabian Gulf.

The Dubai Mall, with over 1,000 shops, is the world’s largest shopping, leisure and entertainment complex and just one of the many ‘only in Dubai’ experiences. Whilst many visitors are drawn by tempting tax-free shopping, groups will discover plenty of other things to do in the city.

Although Dubai oozes wealth, and boasts the world’s first seven-star hotel, GTOs will find it much more affordable than in years gone by. Although famous for its luxury hotels, there are more than 200 less expensive three, two and one-star properties. The impact of the global recession and drop in business travel has resulted in tumbling hotel rates, which is also good news for group organisers. And with 133 direct weekly flights from the UK, including departures from six regional airports, Dubai has never been more accessible.

Whatever you end up doing during your Arabian adventure, don’t forget to pack some empty bags for all that shopping.

Top three sights

1. Deira gold souk: Even if you’re window-shopping, take in the sheer spectacle of Dubai’s most famous gold souk, or market, where the narrow streets are lined with wall-to-wall shops dripping with gold jewellery and ornaments.

2. Al Fahidi Fort: The museum in this 18th century fort takes visitors back to the days when Dubai was, almost unbelievably, a small fishing village. Colourful life-size scenes depict life in traditional Arab houses, mosques, souks, date farms, the desert and sea.

3. Desert: Outside the city the open desert stretches for as far as the eye can see, creating a spectacular landscape interspersed with rolling dunes. A wide range of excursions are available, with collection and drop off at hotels, including exciting trips in 4WD vehicles and, for the adventurous, the chance to try sand skiing.

Retail therapy

From haggling in atmospheric souks, or markets, to unashamedly upmarket designer boutiques, Dubai has it all. Opened in 2008, the Dubai Mall is the biggest of them all. Open daily, and until midnight Thursday to Saturday, shops range from a gold souk to designer stores and familiar names like Debenhams and Marks & Spencer. It’s home to the world’s largest ‘dancing fountain’, shooting water up to 500 feet in the air, along with an aquarium, ice-skating rink and other attractions.

Not to be outdone, Dubai’s original huge shopping centre, Mall of the Emirates, is currently undergoing an expansion programme that includes the newly opened Fashion Dome with 40 luxury stores. The mall also boasts an A to Z of designer and high street brands, from Asprey to Zara, and not forgetting the flagship department store - our very own Harvey Nichols.

If members of your group are going for gold, prices are determined by weight and haggling is part of the bargain. Whilst prices can be around 50 per cent cheaper than the UK, it pays to be prudent, and a far cheaper alternative is to explore the colourful carpet, food and spice souks.

Serial shoppers make a date for the annual Dubai Shopping Festival, taking place in January and February 2011, which combines special events and entertainment with a bargain bonanza that sees stores slashing prices by up to 50 per cent.

Sand & ski

Ski Dubai is another inimitable Dubai experience. The world’s third largest indoor ski slope, using 6,000 tons of snow and with the first ever indoor black run, is housed inside the Mall of the Emirates. There may be scorching sun and sand outside, but the ski shop sells woolly hats and ski wear as if it’s the most natural thing to do.

For skiers, the £30 entry includes two hours on the indoor ski slope, skis, poles, boots, socks, jacket and trousers, although you need to bring your own hat and gloves or buy them in the shop. Non-skiers can pay £20 to be kitted out in cold weather gear and have fun throwing snowballs, going down the bobsled run in the novel adjoining snow park, or watching the ski slope action while sipping a cup of hot chocolate in the St Moritz Cafe.

Amazing architecture

The boom years of Dubai are reflected in its incredible buildings, which will have your group members craning their necks to gaze at skyscrapers clad in vast expanses of reflective glass. Sightseeing tours will take in the main ones including the Burj Khalifa, the newest and tallest of them all. Another famous landmark is the seven-star  hotel, shaped like a sail and dominating the luxury properties that line Jumeirah beach.

Also in the beachfront area is Jumeirah Mosque, a spectacular ivory stone structure that was built in 1976 and is a beautiful tribute to modern Islamic architecture. The mosque looks particularly impressive when it is lit up at night, and it is also open for daytime tours costing £1.75. Visitors have to remove their shoes when visiting the mosque and women must wear hats or headscarves and clothes covering their arms and legs, whilst men need to wear long trousers, shirts or T-shirts with sleeves.

When Dubai’s prime building land started to run out, developers turned their attention to the sea and began constructing buildings on man-made islands. The most famous is Palm Jumeirah, in the shape of a palm tree with a trunk, 16 fronds and surrounded by a crescent- shaped island that forms a breakwater. Centrepiece of the ingenious development is Atlantis, which includes Aquaventure, an exciting water theme park.

Getting around

Nobody in Dubai walks between the different districts and there aren’t any pavements along main roads. The newest way to get around is on the Dubai Metro, which scored another first for the emirate as the world’s longest driverless automated railway system.

The two interconnecting red and green lines connect the city with the airport and include popular tourist stops such as the Mall of the Emirates and gold souk. Most of the 29 stations are already open, with the remaining eight due to open by the end of the year. Single journey fares start at just 31 pence.

Another way to get around is by taking taxis, which are metered and relatively cheap. And whilst sleek air-conditioned water taxis were launched earlier this year, a fun way to travel across the creek that divides Dubai is on a traditional open boat called an abra, which costs around 20 pence for the ten minute journey.

Dubai Essentials

Eat: Dubai is home to every type of cuisine imaginable, from top price celebrity chef restaurants - including Gordon Ramsay and Gary Rhodes - to familiar fast food chains. New openings include the 300-seater Hard Rock Cafe at Dubai’s Festival Centre, the largest outside north America. For an authentic taste of Emirati food, try inexpensive Arabic restaurants where dishes are mainly based on Lebanese cuisine. Meze, a selection of small, tasty dishes, is a typical starter, and can be a light meal in itself. Follow with a chicken or lamb shawarma, similar to a kebab, try the tasty fried chick pea and sesame balls called falafel and delicious Arabic bread baked in clay ovens.

Drink: Alcohol is only served in hotels and clubs, and you will be served soft drinks and fruit juices in local restaurants. Yoghurt-based lassi, often flavoured with fruit, and mint tea are widely available and refreshing in a hot climate.

Try: Experience traditional desert transport with a swaying ride on the ‘ship of the desert’. Camel treks (pictured) are available in the cooler early morning and late afternoon, and evening treks can be followed by a meal and entertainment at a traditional Bedouin campsite.

Buy: Apart from competitively-priced jewellery, electronics and other international items, local souvenirs include Arabic coffee pots, soapstone figures, brass, dhurries or floor coverings and coasters, jewellery boxes and other items decorated with turquoise or other semi-precious stones.

Go: October to April is the best time to go if you want to avoid the frazzling summer heat, which can reach 41degrees Celsius in July and August, but if you plan to spend most of your time in air-conditioned malls and attractions, it’s a year-round destination and temperatures drop at night.


Flight time: 7hrs.

Time difference: GMT +4hrs.

Currency: United Arab Emirates Dirham £1=AED5.74.

Language: Arabic, with English widely spoken.

Red tape: Group organisers must note that certain prescribed medicines are prohibited in the UAE. A full list can be found on the website in the useful contact section.

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